Ethiopia’s Amhara Region is a day’s drive northwest of the capital city of Addis Ababa. Farmers in Amhara, like farmers throughout Sub-Sahara Africa, rely upon honey bees to provide an important part of their farm income. They recognize that the honey bee alone has the ability to harvest pollen and nectar from forests and pastures and produce valuable products of honey and beeswax. The farmers of Amhara asked for assistance. I accepted the USAID-funded assignment of Winrock International to assist the farmers gathering at The Hunger Project-Ethiopia’s Machakel agricultural training facility. The farmers explained that when they harvested honey and beeswax, their product was judged to be of low quality; and their beekeeping added little to their incomes. Despite their best efforts, their honey and beeswax yields seemed to continuously dwindle. Those keeping bees for long periods expressed that beekeeping was easier and yields were greater 15 years earlier. In fact, many of the bee hives that farmers owned sat empty of bees. Many of the farmers blamed herbicides for killing their bees. While some herbicides are used by farmers in an effort to increase production on plowed fields, most fields in the Amhara highlands are plowed by oxen and cultivated by hand ax. Herbicides seemed to me to be an unlikely cause for the farmers’ plight. While herbicides kill weeds and reduce this source of forage for bees, the chemicals themselves are generally considered to be safe for bees.
The Amhara farmers also complained of their losing bees to two common activities of tropical honey bees: absconding from the hives and reproductive swarming. I felt like an investigation into the farmers’ bee hives and their beekeeping practices might help explain these losses. The agricultural fields of Ethiopia’s highlands are interrupted by two of the world’s magnificent river gorges, the Jamma and the Blue Nile. Approaching Machakel, rock walls built of six-sided crystals of volcanic columnar basalt line the paved road offering a honeycomb pattern to this land of bees.--Richard